A Commentary by John Stott
Matthew. 5:43-48. Active love (continued).
As for the imprecatory psalms, in them the psalmist speaks not with any personal animosity but as a representative of God’s chosen people Israel, regards the wicked as the enemies of God, counts them his own enemies only because he had completely identified himself with the cause of God, hates them because he loves God, and is so confident that his ‘hatred’ is ‘perfect hatred’ that he calls upon God in the next breath to search him and know his heart, to try him and know his thoughts, in order to see if there is any wickedness in him (Ps.139:19-24). That we cannot easily aspire to this is an indication not of our spirituality but of our lack of it, not of our superior love for men but of our inferior love of God, indeed of our inability to hate the wicked with a hatred that is ‘perfect’ and not ‘personal’.
The truth is that evil men should be the object simultaneously of our ‘love’ and of our ‘hatred’, as they are simultaneously the objects of God’s (although his ‘hatred’ is expressed as is ‘wrath’). To love them is ardently to desire that they will repent and believe, and so be saved. To ‘hate’ them is to desire with equal ardour that, if they stubbornly refuse to repent and believe, they will incur God’s judgment. Have you never prayed for the salvation of wicked men (e.g., who blaspheme God or exploit their fellow humans for profit as if they were animals), and gone on to pray that if they refuse God’s salvation, then God’s judgment will fall upon them? I have. It is a natural expression of our belief in God, that he is the God both of salvation and of judgment, and that we desire his perfect will to be done.
So there is such a thing as perfect hatred, just as there is such a thing as righteous anger. But it is a hatred for *God’s* enemies, not our own enemies. It is entirely free of all spite, rancour and vindictiveness, and is fired only by love for God’s honour and glory. It finds expression now in the prayer of the martyrs who have been killed for the word of God and for their witness (Rev.6:10). And it will be expressed on the last day by the whole company of God’s redeemed people who, seeing God’s judgment come upon the wicked, will concur in its perfect justice and will say in unison, ‘Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, for his judgments are true and just…Amen. Hallelujah! (Rev.19:1,3,4).
It will surely now be conceded that such pure ‘hatred’ of evil and of evil men, unmixed with any taint of personal malice, gave the rabbis no possible justification for changing God’s command to love our neighbour into a permission also to hate those who hate us, our personal enemies. The words ‘and hate your enemy’ were a ‘parasitical growth’ upon God’s law; they had no business there. God did not teach his people a double standard of morality, one for a neighbour and another for an enemy.
So Jesus contradicted their addition as a gross distortion of the law: *But I say to you, Love your enemies* (44). For our neighbour, as he later illustrated so plainly in the parable of the good Samaritan (Lk.10:29-37), is not necessarily a member of our own race, rank or religion. He may not even have any connection with us. He may be our enemy, who is after us with a knife or a gun. Our ‘neighbour’ in the vocabulary of God includes our enemy. What constitutes him our neighbour is simply that he is a fellow human being in need, whose need we know and are in a position in some measure to relieve.
What, then, is our duty to our neighbour, whether he be friend or foe? We are to love him. Moreover, if we add the clauses in Luke’s account of the Sermon, our love for him will be expressed in our deeds, our words and our prayers. First, our deeds. ‘Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you… Love your enemies and do good…’(Lk.6:27, 35). ‘Do-gooders’ are despised in today’s world, and, to be sure, if philanthropy is self-conscious and patronizing, it is not what Jesus meant by ‘doing good’. The point he is making is that true love is not sentiment so much as service – practical, humble, sacrificial service. As Dostoyevsky put it somewhere, ‘Love in action is much more terrible than love in dreams.’ Our enemy is seeking our harm; we must seek his good. For this is how God has treated us. It is ‘while we were enemies’ that Christ died for us to reconcile us to God (Rom.5:10). If he gave himself for his enemies, we must give ourselves for ours.
Tomorrow: Matthew 5:43-48. Active love (continued).
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of the Sermon on the Mount. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.